Remembering Paul Silburn

Paul Silburn, renowned copywriter and veteran of agencies including BBH, Leo Burnett, TBWA, and Saatchi & Saatchi, passed away last week. Here, colleague and friend Ben Kay reflects on his life and his work

How do you write a tribute to Paul Silburn?

Do you dive into the ads? After all, you could write an entire book on John Smith’s No Nonsense, John West Bear, Life On The Playstation, several Stella Artois classics, the best press campaign Levi’s ever did, award-winning Nike posters, and further brilliance for Reebok, Hugo Boss, Scalextric, Olympus, Weetabix and many more.

Do you go through what was produced under his watch as ECD? Ground-breaking content before that was a thing, multiple Ad of the Year awards at the British Arrows, millions of views and shares for beloved virals, Pink playing a gig in Trafalgar Square….

Or do you look at all the agencies touched by his genius? Paul was a big reason why Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow and Johnson, BBH, Lowe, Leo Burnett, TBWA, Fallon, and Saatchi & Saatchi were so great. He even produced a tonne of famous, awarded work during a freelance stint at RKCR/Y&R.

But if you want to find out all about that, you can look him up on the D&AD archive and experience the magic all over again.

Instead, I’d like to remember Paul Silburn the person.

I had another listen to the podcast I recorded with him in March, and found two moments that seemed to give a couple of clues as to why he was so funny, generous, irreverent and kind.

Describing his early years trying to get a break in advertising, he mentioned encountering a kind of snobbery from successful creatives, who refused to see him because he was working at a small, unknown agency. As he put it, “I knocked on a lot of doors, only to get them slammed in my face”.

Some people might react to this by copying that behaviour, pulling the ladder up when they finally reached the top. But Paul went in the opposite direction. Chat with any young team who came into his orbit during his years at London’s top agencies and you’ll find many who owe him a big debt for a placement, job or career-boosting credit.

One example that stands out is Chris Bovill and John Allison, recent winners of multiple Cannes Grand Prix awards, D&AD Golds and every other award on the planet. Go back to 2003 and you’ll find their name alongside Paul’s on the John Smith’s campaign. They came up with one of the executions, and Paul included it in every award entry, sharing the credit with the then-junior team. That’s a level of generosity you definitely won’t find in every creative director.

My own experience of that kindness came when Paul appointed me to be on the press jury of D&AD before I’d even had a press ad in the annual. When I asked if he was being serious he said, “Of course! It’s a really good bunch of people. We’ll have a great time.” The underhanded compliment was also much appreciated.

I believe that inclusive attitude was also behind his approach to creativity. Although he was enormously respected by his advertising peers, his work was unashamedly populist. It was the kind of crowd-pleasing stuff that was celebrated in pubs, offices and playgrounds as much as it was in the Groucho Club.

And he was modest, too. As we chatted through his career he made one quick, throwaway reference to the fact that he came up with the Lynx Effect, a campaign that ran for over a decade and helped build creative careers all over the world.

The second clue came right at the beginning of our conversation, when he brought up his school days: “I had problems being told what to do. Something that still bugs me today,” he explained.

Paul definitely did it his way. To get his foot in the door of a great agency he took a placement in his 30s. Later, in one of the top departments in London, he no longer enjoyed working with his partner. His CDs refused to get him a new one, so he left. The first ad he made at his new home won dozens of awards. When one of his Stella spots received a Gold at Cannes the audience booed, so he joined in. The next Gold that evening then received rapturous applause. It was also one of his.

He worked at Leo Burnett for about seven months, only making one commercial. It was John West Bear. He put porn stars in a Playstation campaign and fooled a lot of people into thinking penguins could fly.

He also did it his way at Fallon. Was it a massive success? No. Did he shake up a place that was in trouble, reshaping their department and revitalising their work? Absolutely.

While we’re asking questions, did he manage to keep a straight face as he told a junior team they had to wear kilts for their trip to a Scottish distillery? Did he approve the most batshit-crazy chocolate bar ad of all time? Did he give his number to Harvey Keitel, then pretend he wasn’t in because Harvey was calling him too much?

I couldn’t possibly say, but I can tell you that he never lost his mojo.

Back in July I was trying to recruit the best creatives I knew to contribute to a climate crisis initiative. Paul immediately came up with two excellent ideas, one of which we’re in the process of making. Every time I describe it to anyone – activists, venture capitalists, directors – they all think it’s brilliant.

In October I received my last email from Paul. Someone had made a version of his second climate crisis concept: using a music track to help a political speech spread through social media. The message was a link to some of its press coverage, followed by a sentence that summed Paul up perfectly:

“I told you it was a good idea.”

Paul Silburn, 1960-2019

GRAPHIC DESIGNER

London, EC3R

SENIOR DESIGNER

Guildford, Surrey